Fran O'Sullivan: Shearer must cosy up to business bosses

Engendering confidence where it matters is vital for Labour to present itself as the lead player in a potential government

David Shearer has yet to win the confidence of many of the country's top company chief executives.  Photo / APN
David Shearer has yet to win the confidence of many of the country's top company chief executives. Photo / APN

David Shearer should be personally disappointed that many of the nation's top chief executives do not believe he has yet demonstrated the right stuff to credibly challenge the Key Government.

There is a yawning gap that Labour could fill if it could get some concerted focus on contemporary issues such as housing, the Christchurch earthquake rebuild and youth unemployment, distance itself from the Greens and present itself as the lead player in a potential government in waiting.

But right now its own leader is too often over-shadowed by the aggressive and media savvy Greens co-leaders Russel Norman and Metiria Turei. And chief executives - who want to be confident that if there is a change of government at the 2014 election that an established party will be in the box seat - have concerns.

In the Herald's Mood of the Boardroom CEOs' Survey last year, Shearer was still on his trainer wheels as Labour's leader.

Some 90 per cent of chief executives said then he hadn't made a dent in John Key's leadership.

And that was fair enough. They - like other New Zealanders - had expectations he would need time to settle into the role. Particularly as the neophyte leader had not even been blooded sufficiently within the parliamentary bearpit before his colleagues elected him to take Phil Goff's place.

This year, even more CEOs surveyed by the Herald said Shearer's performance had still not been credible enough to challenge the National Government.

It is important that the leader of a major political party like Labour can engender confidence among the bosses of New Zealand's larger companies that he (or she) is up to the challenge of taking on the Government on issues that matter.

For one thing it leads to better policy. Two former Cabinet ministers (now businessmen) have reflected to me since the 2013 survey came out on Thursday, how important it is for the government of the day to be challenged by a competent Opposition which can pull them up on issues that matter and suggest modifications to important legislation.

It also makes the government of the day work just that much harder.

And the competitive battle on the policy front is also more likely to make the leading Opposition player refine its own policies so it does not pony up to an election with policies that are so daft and untested that the business folks who make the major investment decisions in this economy sit on their hands. As Helen Clark found in 2002, it goes that much better for a government if the commercial sector is not discontented. But Shearer's efforts on this score have been hampered by own goals, like not being able to produce the video tape which he claimed would have showed Key was telling porkies on the GCSB/Kim Dotcom saga, and his inability to communicate what Labour stands for in an authentic manner.

Shearer's fortunes were not helped by the latest TV3 poll in which Labour slid 2.1 per cent to a 31 per cent rating. The results will inevitably increase tensions with the usual suspects calculating what leadership permutations might work if Labour continues its poll slump and its leader - now on to his third chief of staff - can't lift his game.

The permutations of different leadership combinations: Deputy leader Grant Robertson, David Cunliffe, Andrew Little and Shane Jones all in the mix together with David Parker for the top trio of roles: leader, deputy leader and finance spokesman.

They all have important attributes.

But personally, I've never been able to understand why Labour MPs chucked Goff out so quickly after the 2011 election. He has always been an excellent performer and would have driven hard against Key over the past 18 months and made the dents Shearer couldn't.

It probably gets up Labour's nose to say so but there is no reason to throw out a seasoned performer (who is clearly light years better than many of his colleagues) simply because he has been in Parliament since his 30s.

Let's face it, John Howard - who like Goff was a Cabinet minister - before becoming Leader of the Opposition then being rejected by colleagues, rose again to take the Australian Liberals through to win the 1996 election and reigned successfully as Australia's Prime Minister for four terms before being thrown out of his own seat.

What makes it even harder for Shearer is that New Zealand is now in much better shape. Companies are making more money and more of them now plan to hire more staff. The country is finally much more confident and resilient.

But there are also some issues where Key's Government has been slow and offer options for Labour to drive some wedges in National's popularity. Auckland housing pressures are one; the Canterbury rebuild needs to step up the pace on the major projects front; youth unemployment initiatives are another.

The big challenge for Shearer will be stopping National from covering off such issues first (that's if he can hold on to his job).

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

Read more by Fran O'Sullivan

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